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“Our CEO has a next door neighbor who has a son who got into minor trouble,” Marlee, a volunteer manager says. “The neighbor asked our CEO if his son could do community service at her organization. I called the son repeatedly, left messages, but he never returned my calls. Wouldn’t you know it, my manager told me our CEO was annoyed because the neighbor blames me for not connecting with the son. My manager said our CEO made the comment that volunteers never seem to be able to get started here.” Marlee sighed. “I can’t win.”

Ehhhhhhhhhh. How can one opinion or circumstance create a belief? Why didn’t the CEO say, to her neighbor, “that’s certainly not typical of OUR volunteer department.” How could she seemingly frame an entire belief on one opinion?

There is something known as Confirmation Bias, an effect that feeds our assumptions. So maybe, Marlee’s CEO might have simply felt that her neighbor’s son was just one more example of the volunteer department’s failure to properly onboard volunteers because she already believed it to be true.

Where did this belief come from? Did the CEO hear other examples (and it doesn’t matter how accurate they are, it’s the perception) of volunteers not onboarding quickly while not hearing enough success stories? Or maybe it has nothing to do with Marlee. Perhaps the CEO had a poor experience volunteering when in college. Maybe the CEO heard horror stories at networking events and applied those stories to all volunteer departments.  Is that fair? No, and even worse, perceptions are really hard to change.

So what should the strong volunteer leader do when hearing these 1pinion comments?

Don’t get mad or hurt-get curious: What is fueling these opinions? Do some research via surveying the staff or a one on one chat with senior management to find the sources of these perceptions. Say, “I heard something that concerns me. I think there is a perception that I don’t get in touch with new volunteers and I’d like to find out what happened to create that perception.” Then, be prepared to act! Refuting assumptions is one route to take, but there are better ways as in…

Double down on positive reporting: Counter negative perceptions by offering facts supporting positive volunteer department accomplishments. Review your stats to find areas that are lacking. Create new categories of reporting to freshen up the numbers. But, again, this is somewhat akin to refuting, so there is another thing to try…

Create your own performance improvement plan: No one wants to be unfairly criticized, so if there is a perception floating around that volunteers are not being contacted in a timely manner, embrace it on your terms. Let go of the frustration at having been unfairly labeled. A self-imposed performance improvement plan accomplishes two really important things.

One, it says a great deal about you-that you are always willing to improve (and here it’s not about being unfairly labeled, it’s about always striving for excellence).  Say, “If there is a perception that new volunteers are not called back in a timely manner, well it came from somewhere and I’m here to change that. I don’t want one prospective volunteer to slip through the cracks.” This approach shows that you don’t harbor an us (volunteer department) versus them (upper management) attitude, that you are solution-oriented, and that you are proactive and approachable.

Two, it allows you to create a new narrative by moving forward from this point of misconception.  (It’s so much easier to create new impressions, than fix old ones). By acknowledging the old perception, you are not positioning yourself for a fight. You are forging a new, cooperative path, one in which your future statistics will be embraced in a positive light. And you will find your critics becoming supporters along this journey.

We are all prone to confirmation bias. As proactive leaders, we must put aside our personal feelings when hearing negative perceptions, and work to change those perceptions by creating new, positive ones.

Let’s face it. Opinions are not facts. Opinions can be unfair. While we may not be able to control each and every negative opinion, as proactive leaders, we certainly can control what we do about them. And the thing we do best is understand people and their motivations.

When confronted with 1pinions, we can gear up for a pointless fight or we can use our strengths to create new and more positive realities.